Why WikiLeaks Is Winning Its Info War

In the spectacle of Julian Assange's asymmetrical war on government secrecy, the more he is attacked, the greater the power and reach of his movement becomes

  • Share
  • Read Later
Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Assange's supporters rally to his defense

There was a time when WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange's voluntary surrender to the British authorities might have put an end to the crisis created by the Internet provocateur's dissemination of tens of thousands of state secrets. But in the upside-down world of transnational crowdsourcing unleashed by WikiLeaks, in which thousands of activists around the globe can be rallied to defend and extend its work, Assange's arrest is a win, not a loss, for his organization.

The asymmetrical info war initiated by the WikiLeaks dump of diplomatic cables is all about spectacle — the more Assange is set up by world powers, the more powerful his own movement becomes. "The field of battle is WikiLeaks," wrote John Perry Barlow, a former Grateful Dead lyricist and founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the First Amendment advocacy group, in a message to his followers. "You are the troops." WikiLeaks admiringly forwarded the post to 300,000 of its own followers. As the U.S. and other governments attempted to close down WikiLeaks over the past week, those "troops" have fought back. And so far, it doesn't look like much of a contest.

First, the U.S. government pushed WikiLeaks off the servers of Amazon, its U.S. host — thanks in part to an effort by the office of Senator Joe Lieberman, who heads the Senate Homeland Security Committee. After the rogue site was pushed off a smaller, backup host in the U.S., it moved first to a Swiss domain, then to a simple numeric one. WikiLeaks has complained, and some news outlets have reported, about apparent hacker attacks against the website. The effect of all that pressure, however, was very much like cutting the head off the mythical Hydra. By Tuesday evening, WikiLeaks listed 507 Web addresses that it said were hosting the site worldwide.

The U.S. and its allies have taken other steps to curb WikiLeaks' activities. The French Industry Minister Eric Besson called for the site to be banned from French servers. Swiss bank PostFinance announced it had frozen $41,000 in an account set up as a legal-defense fund for Assange. The bank said it took action because Assange had claimed Geneva as his domicile when opening the account, but this had proved incorrect and he could not show that he is a Swiss resident. PayPal, MasterCard and Visa have all blocked donations to WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks' backers are fighting back, though their hacker attacks on some of the sites that shut off WikiLeaks funding may be less effective.

Assange's detention is not without its costs to him and WikiLeaks. Swedish prosecutors say he has been accused of having had unprotected sex with a woman, identified only as Miss A, despite her insistence that he use a condom, and that he had unprotected sex with a second woman, Miss W, while she was asleep. Both scenarios would be crimes in Sweden, and the attention to the charges has divided some of his supporters. Assange has not been formally charged with any crime and denies any wrongdoing.

But the principal effect of his arrest has been to rally the troops. Assange, who was in hiding in England, turned himself in to British police on Tuesday morning. That afternoon, he faced a hearing in which his British lawyer pledged to appeal again against extradition to Sweden. Several people present offered tens of thousands of dollars worth of bail, but the judge ordered him held without bail. Supporters cheered Assange as he left the courthouse.

And the David vs. Goliath stagecraft continues. Assange's Swedish attorney, Bjorn Hurtig, told Reuters on Friday that he suspects "somebody has an interest in getting [Assange] to Sweden and maybe asking for him to be extradited to another country [from there]." In fact, extradition from Europe to the U.S. is hard, and even if Assange could be extradited it's not clear what he could be charged with.

There is, of course, a limit to how much Assange can win. In the U.S., officials are finding that while there were certainly structural reasons like expanded technology and overclassification behind the theft of the leaked documents, practical reasons were equally important. Thanks to an imperative from then commander of the U.S. Central Command David Petraeus and others to share information with allies on improvised explosive devices and other threats, the Central Command allowed the downloading of data from its secret in-house network, SIPRNet, to removable storage devices, officials tell TIME. The information was then carried to computers linked to secret networks used by allies and uploaded. The process was derisively called "sneaker net," because it was so inefficient, although it replaced the prior need to manually retype all information into the allied computers.

New restrictions on downloading media have been imposed over the past six months, restoring the restrictions that existed before the leaks. That may be one victory for the U.S. in its attempts to fight WikiLeaks. Meanwhile, Assange's lawyer said Tuesday that a new editor in chief of WikiLeaks would step in during Assange's absence.
With reporting by Eben Harrell / London